Literary Devices in "The Old Man and the Sea"

Written by johnalee johnston
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Literary Devices in "The Old Man and the Sea"
Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" was the last novel he published in his lifetime. (books image by Tadija Savic from

Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" helped to build a new hybrid in 1950s American literature that married philosophical ideology with a strict code of realism. Claiming the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, the novella was ironically deemed by many critics to be the most "non-Hemingway" piece he had ever written due to the story's clear separation from the barefaced quality of his earlier work. "The Old Man and the Sea" embraces many key literary devices that epitomise 20th century modernism in literature.

Inspiration as Theme

Two themes in "The Old Man and the Sea" summarise Hemingway's personal belief in struggle and the necessity of having heroes as you get older. The first theme swarms around Santiago, an older Cuban fisherman seeking to redeem the fading areas of his life through a phenomenal catch in the Gulf Stream. Written in the "deep-creased scars" on Santiago's hands is not only the language of heavy fish on rope cords but also the tale of an inspiring hero. Santiago becomes the hero of his own story when his catching an 18-foot marlin becomes synonymous with recovering the reins of possibility in his life.

Underlying Theme

An undercurrent to the inspirational theme of "The Old Man and the Sea" is the transformation from possibility to faith. Santiago's story is often a violent one in which fishing becomes physical and spiritual sustenance; both fight throughout the story before landing in a mutual place of inevitability that is often hard for Santiago to bear. His statement, "I am glad that we do not have to kill the stars," offers a clear glimpse into the heartache he felt in killing an innocent aspect of nature. Santiago's tale becomes one of faith as he lets go of his moral code and begins to follow his inherent nature in the same innocent way as the marlin that dragged his boat out to sea.


Despite Hemingway's insistence of a complete absence of symbolism in "The Old Man and the Sea," it is far removed from the "what you see is what you get" form of storytelling popular in post-World War II literature. The main conflict of the story is deeply layered in Santiago's inability to accept his own mortality. As Santiago eventually clubs the marlin to death after being pulled out to sea for days, he is really attempting to kill the time that has stolen his youth, vigour and dreams. The last lesson in inevitability arrives in the form of the marlin's skeleton, ripped apart by sharks during the old man's journey home.


As Santiago's life becomes increasingly insular during his time alone in the Gulf Stream, the omniscient narrator uses personification as a supporting character. The story explores, via the sea, the porpoises, the sun and the moon, a continuous theme regarding the way people and the world as a whole function within their inherent natures. The sea, for example, is feminine in Santiago's world, "and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them," the narrator declares. Porpoises "play and make jokes," while the sun and moon take turns at running and standing their ground.

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